LONG BEFORE GOLF became popular, even before families came to play on our spacious the beaches, people have traveled to experience Hilton Head’s natural environment and culture.
This quest—to experience our diverse wildlife, waters, maritime forest and unique historical sites—was the original treasure that lured visitors to this once sleepy Island over 60 years ago. Back in the day, we called it a vacation. Nowadays, this activity is named ecotourism. It’s the fastest-growing, most sustainable tourism market on this Island, and in the world.
The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as: “responsible travel to natural or cultural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” Ecotourism is the fastest growing form of visitation in the world. From the South Pole to South Beach, people are seeking meaning and life experience through travel.
As TIES says, in these modern times, the travels we take should actually help the people and natural resources of the places we visit. This is a far cry from the past century’s tourism built around automobile travel, cheap fuel and interstate highways that bypassed significant natural and cultural areas.
But Hilton Head Island developed its tourism program based on nature, history, community, and experience.
It all began with an alligator and a straw hat
In the early 1950s, Hilton Head’s population peaked at 300 persons. A slow ferry was the only link to the mainland. The economy was subsistence: native Islanders maintained an active rural lifestyle built around farming and fishing. The beaches were quiet, the salt marsh, rife with seafood, and the roadways were only narrow sand lanes. This changed when Charles Fraser set foot on the Island.
Fraser’s first idea was to sell a few oceanfront lots in Sea Pines Plantation, his new development inaugurated in 1956. People visited, bought land, and build cozy houses—cottages, really—by the beach. They rode horses on the beach, enjoyed the sunset and well, just relaxed. Meanwhile Fraser invited several travel magazine writers to see the Island for themselves. He struck the now famous pose: striding with a pearl handled cane and dressed in a full suit and a Panama hat—alongside an adult alligator. He had his eyes on the gator. And the gator stared back at him. Neither one blinked.
This renowned scene set the stage. It said: “Hilton Head Island is an exotic subtropical Island, rich with Low Country wildlife and culture. Come explore. You will never forget Hilton Head Island!” Apparently people were reading the magazines. From the time of Fraser’s ‘gator pose until today, the Island population has grown to about 37,000 permanent residents. And the number of visitors tops 2 million persons annually. And the ecotourism ethos lives on.
When the large communities such as Sea Pines, Port Royal, Palmetto Dunes, Palmetto Hall and Hilton Head Plantation were developed, the founders voluntarily preserved a rich array of cultural and historical, plus thousands of acres of covenant-protected open space linked with trails, boardwalks, interpretive exhibits, and guided tours. The developments established an ethos of tree and cultural sites preservation.
No government rules mandated this scale of protection. The early developers did it voluntarily, and for all time. Eventually, the Town of Hilton Head Island incorporated (1983). The Town has expanded environmental and cultural preservation efforts, open space access, and public information outreach. The ethos of ecotourism—balancing business, environment protection, and local cultural benefits—is alive and growing up strong on our great Island.